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The Best Science Books for Kids: the 2019 Royal Society Young Person’s Book Prize Shortlist

recommended by Sheila Rowan

Interview by Sophie Roell

If you're looking for the best books to get kids excited about science, the Royal Society Young Person's Book Prize is a great place to start. Physicist and astronomer Sheila Rowan, chair of this year's judging panel, talks us through the fabulous books that made this year's shortlist.

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Sheila Rowan

Sheila Rowan FRS is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow, as well as the director of its Institute for Gravitational Research.  Her work contributed to "one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of this century: the first detection of gravitational waves announced in February 2016." She is also Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government. In addition to a number of prizes for her work, she was awarded an MBE in 2011.

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The Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize is about inspiring young people to read about science and promotes the writing of “excellent, accessible STEM books for under-14s.” Today we’re talking through the books that made the 2019 shortlist. Isn’t it quite hard to write science books for kids, because of the difficulty of some of the concepts?

It’s a challenge at any time to do that communication in science and communicate the ideas to your audience, but I think under-14s are actually a very receptive audience, because when you’re young, you’re interested in so many things. Under-14s can be quite sophisticated in their interests and their engagement with the wider world, so I don’t think we should underestimate our audience.

It’s about finding ways to engage in different ways and the writers that we have here on our shortlist have done a fantastic job.

What age did you get interested in science? Were science books part of what inspired you as a kid?

My own interest in science, in physics and astronomy, started when I was in primary school, probably around the age of 10. I really was interested in the big questions. I think everybody is, because these are the natural questions to ask: Where did we come from? Where did the Earth come from? Where did everything come from? I couldn’t think of anything more interesting thing than trying to find out the answers to those questions.

“For a young child, beautifully illustrated books can really capture the imagination”

I’m also a big reader. I enjoyed reading from a very, very young age, and I was a big reader of fiction as well as being interested in the science side of things. I found illustrations captivating. For a young child, beautifully illustrated books can really capture the imagination. You can do that on the printed page.

So my interest started pretty young, and knowing there are questions that are so fundamental and people don’t know the answer to I thought was just fascinating.

When I look at the books my children are reading, I feel there are a lot more science books for kids out there now than when I was their age. Do you find that?

I don’t know. I remember, when I was young, having a very beautiful, illustrated children’s encyclopaedia. I remember vividly looking at the pictures in it and spending a lot of time flicking through it and reading about a whole bunch of different subjects. I loved the beautiful illustrations of animals and I found the natural history side of it very interesting—although I’ve ended up as a physicist.

When I went out to buy books for my niece and nephew when they were younger, I found some delightful books. My impression is that there are more books now that are appealing both to children and adults. Although they’re aimed at children, they’re fun to read as an adult too. The quality of them is certainly very high.

On that note, let’s look at some of the fabulous books that have made the Royal Society’s Young Person’s Book Prize shortlist this year. The first one is 100 Things to Know About Numbers, Computers & Coding, which is published by Usborne, one of my favourite children’s book publishers. Tell me why this book made the shortlist.

This is a subject that is so important. Computers are such a big part of our life and understanding a little bit about them is of benefit to everyone. But it can be quite a dry subject, ‘numbers, computing and coding’: even the title doesn’t sound very promising. But the book itself presents some fascinating facts. They’re quite mind-boggling, some of them. It’s amazing to look at.

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Each fact is its own story and they’re quite self-contained, so you don’t need to read the whole book at once. You can dip in and out—from learning about the coding machines used in the Second World War and how they were used, to the fact that ‘a billion’ is different in different places.

I thought it was such a nice, accessible way to get people interested in computers and numbers and programming and coding.

I learned some things too. For example, my kids have always struggled with telling the time and just this week were saying that having 12 numbers on the clock doesn’t make any sense. But now I’ve read this book, I can blame that on the ancient Egyptians.

Isn’t it fascinating? There are really interesting facts in the book. Each time I dip into it, I pick up a new one and it stimulates new thoughts. Just looking at each story is thought-provoking and hopefully it will inspire people to learn a little bit more about each of them.

Let’s go on to the next book, which is The Bacteria Book. This has a subtitle guaranteed to appeal to children, ‘Gross germs, vile viruses and funky fungi.’

Yes, and it’s wonderfully written by Steve Mould!

This book is very educational, but in a totally different way. Again, some parts of it are just fascinating. I was looking at the eyelash mites earlier, with this wonderful picture of the tails of the little mites sticking out of a follicle. As adults, we often don’t like to think about the slightly grosser side of things, but that’s life, it’s our life and it’s important to understand it. It’s quite appealing to kids, who really are interested in the squishy and bacterial side of things, the micro-animals. And the book has got wonderful, wonderful pictures.

Also, one important fact the book conveys is the difference between bacteria and viruses. That’s something you need to understand when you grow up and have, say, flu.

Yes, being able to understand the difference between bacteria and viruses and the consequences of that difference is very helpful.

So I think it’s a great book with some beautiful, big, bright illustrations—like the one of a tomato that’s gone mouldy, really nice and squishy. The book uses different ways to captures one’s interest.

Let’s talk about the next kids science book, The Element in the Room by Mike Barfield and illustrated by Lauren Humphrey. This goes through the elements in the periodic table, and why indeed it’s called the periodic table.

This is another beautiful book and really quite innovative. You don’t see so much chemistry in children’s books, so it’s quite an unusual topic to cover. It’s very, very interesting and highly educational for understanding all the different elements that we have. Again there are nice key facts. You can dip in and out of each of the elements, learning what they’re used for, where you find them. Then there’s a little bit of storytelling and the ‘atomic comics,’ which are various stories associated with the periodic table.

So this book tells a story about another thing that’s key in our world—the elements that make up matter and what their properties are—and presents them very well.

What kind of stories are the atomic comics about?

I’ve opened up the book randomly, at ‘the bearded detective and the case of the periodic table’. It explains what the periodic table is, how it came about, how the elements are numbered and structured, and how some of them are named.

There’s another one that tells us about Humphrey Davy: ‘Davy the detective, the case of the electrolyzed elements’, which talks about electrolysis and how that works.

Number four on the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize shortlist for 2019 is a book about Kid Scientists by David Stabler and illustrated by Anoosh Syed. I just watched the movie, Hidden Figures, with my children and they were absolutely charmed by it—so I was quite excited to see the book started with Katherine Johnson’s story.

This book is a lovely idea because often you see these very famous scientists who’ve made some fantastic discovery. For a child, they might seem very remote: how on earth do you ever get to be like that? Telling the story of these famous scientists when they were children was fascinating. Instead of thinking how can I get to be like that person, it’s about what they were like when they were young, like me.

“Telling the story of these famous scientists when they were children was fascinating”

And the stories themselves are really, really interesting. It’s about what these scientists’ interests were, what challenges they had. Often we see the endpoint, which is success, but we don’t see all the challenges along the way or the path that people took. So I thought this was a lovely, new way of telling that story.

Was there a scientist that inspired you as a kid?

It was really more the topic than any one individual astronomer that inspired me. As a child, I found it amazing that we sit here on the surface of the Earth, and how much we can understand remotely, by looking up and deducing things about other planets and things far away in space. When you see people who’ve been able to do that and then as a child, thinking about what were they doing when they were my age, I think is a nice touchstone.

Was there a particular story about a scientist in the book that you liked?

The Katherine Johnson story was eye-opening—some of the challenges that she faced when she was young. It made her story even more interesting to understand that.

We’re at no. 5 now, of this list of science books for kids. This is Planetarium, and the text is written by a professor of astrophysics at UCL, Raman Prinja, so I presume it’s pretty accurate. The illustrations are by Chris Wormell and are stunning.

Isn’t it beautiful? If you’re talking about illustrations, this is just beautifully illustrated. I’ve just opened it up and I’m looking at the Moon. The Moon is an object that you can actually see in quite a lot of detail with a pair of good binoculars. The Moon is quite relatable, too, because when you look up, it’s so close. It is illustrated beautifully in this book, with texture.

“The Moon is an object that you can actually see in quite a lot of detail with a pair of good binoculars”

As we go further out, we look at cosmic collisions in the Milky Way galaxy. The pictures that people can take now, the astronomical photographs, are just spectacular and the artistic impression of them in this book are beautifully presented. If you’re interested at all in what’s out there in space, this book is particularly gorgeous.

You mentioned binoculars for looking at the Moon. For a kid who’s just starting out looking at the sky, is a pair of binoculars more useful than a telescope?

It’s the easiest way to do it. Rather than going out and buying a telescope specifically, you can see a lot with just a decent pair of binoculars. So it’s a very nice, easy way for people to get started.

Were you watching the night sky from a young age?

I’m not a hardened amateur astronomer like some of my colleagues, who have really sophisticated equipment to go out and look at the sky. But as a young child, even seeing a shooting star was so amazing. Every year we have meteor showers that come past and I remember going out with friends from home. One of them lived on a farm just outside town, in the south of Scotland where it’s very dark, and going out and standing in a field and looking up to see the meteor showers was just beautiful.

When you’re choosing books for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize, are you very concerned about accuracy? As judges, do you have to make sure the books you’re picking for kids are portraying the science accurately?

For all the books that make it onto the shortlist, there were checks done to look at the scientific accuracy of them. I won’t say we exhaustively read every word to check, but accuracy is something one would certainly want for the scientific content.

Finally the last book on this list of science books for kids under the age of 14: Making with States of Matter by Anna Claybourne. Tell me about this book.

Making with States of Matter, again, I thought was very interesting. It has a scientific theme, which is the different states of matter—solid, liquid, gas—and how those change. But it comes at it from an angle that I thought was very nice. The state of matter is the theme, but there’s interest in art. For example, you can use the changes of state to do chocolate art. Or make slushies.

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I liked the fact that while you were tackling an area that’s scientific—changes of state—some of the practical applications of that are in there too: like making a desert cooler using flower pots.

The book allows for people to be drawn in who might come to the topic from an artistic interest. It overlaps with broader creative interests, perhaps, folks who might not have so obviously engaged in the topic if it was just presented as science. It’s an opportunity to come at this from a very different perspective and a different set of interests. There’s a section on paper making that I find very appealing.

Isn’t there one about desalination as well?

Yes! And I think you picked my favourite example.

Tell me how you do it.

You’re stuck in a life raft, miles from land, with nothing but seawater to drink. The book shows you how to set up a little distilling system to make some fresh water. There’s also a profile of the woman who worked on this, a portable solar still, Maria Telkes. I was very pleased to see that in there. What an interesting topic!

It could save someone’s life, reading this book.

I think it’s fantastic. All of these books are quite beautiful and so I am enthusiastic about hearing which book is the winner and the comments from our final judges.

Yes, because the ultimate winner of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize, out of this shortlist, will be chosen by kids, is that right?

Exactly. The under-14s are the folks who are the audience for these books, so they are the right people to tell us what the final selection should be.

It’s wonderful that the Royal Society is supporting this prize, to help people find the best science books for kids. I think a lot of people will just want to buy all of them. 

Aren’t they fantastic? And what a lovely spread of topics. It’s nice to see we’ve covered the squishy bacteria in biology, biographies and profiles of science superstars when they were young, computers and coding, the heavens and the periodic table. It’s quite a selection.

What I also really like is that people often think of science as something you can draw a box around and then put over there, because it’s a thing, ‘science.’ But with many of these books, the broader connections, the connections to everyday life come through. That’s true of 100 Things to Know About Numbers, Computers and Coding in particular but also the book about the periodic table, The Element in the Room. That relevance is nice to see coming through in these books.

Read more in the best books of 2019 interview series.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Sheila Rowan

Sheila Rowan FRS is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow, as well as the director of its Institute for Gravitational Research.  Her work contributed to "one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of this century: the first detection of gravitational waves announced in February 2016." She is also Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government. In addition to a number of prizes for her work, she was awarded an MBE in 2011.